Qatar 2022 will create a grassroots legacy

The World Cup has great power to inspire school children and create a grassroots legacy, writes James Keane, teacher and PE lead at Keys Meadow Primary School

Schoolchildren are the lifeblood of grassroots football all over the world – whether that is on the local park, school playground, or at after-school clubs, with a ball and a couple of jumpers for goal posts or a full-blown pitch – it’s arguably the most universal and accessible sport children can play.

Its success as a social phenomenon is due in part to a vast network of teachers, volunteers, and coaches who work to integrate communities and tirelessly dedicate their time to introducing children to the beautiful game.

It is this grassroots base which nurtures the talent that we later enjoy watching as elite players competing at major sporting events such as the 2022 FIFA World Cup. As the most watched sporting fixture on the planet, the World Cup in turn has the potential to inspire millions of children to play the game and dream of becoming the next generation of players. Across the UK, there are countless organisations dedicated to cultivating an interest in the sport among our children. This year alone, the English School Football Association has over 800 schools from across the UK registered to take part in its own Schools’ Football Week initiative.

As a primary school teacher and PE lead, I know the power that football has to transform the lives of schoolchildren and support local communities, and the crucial role schools play in the process. Football is all-inclusive and open to everyone – regardless of ability, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background. With schools often the first place where children are introduced to team sports, they play a key role in improving access to sports and supporting children as they develop critical life skills during their primary education.

The physical health benefits of football to children are well documented, but it is only in recent years that we have started to sit up and take notice of the mental health and social development benefits the game can bring. 
I see first-hand how sports helps young children live happier and healthier lives. The buzz children get off the back of playing a game in the playground during break helps them come to class full of energy and ready to learn. It’s how they develop compassion, teamwork and leadership skills, often in ways that can’t be taught in a classroom. 

While there have been understandable criticisms of the choice of host, the power of this World Cup to inspire schoolchildren and create a grassroots legacy is great – especially as it is being played during term time, unlike previous World Cups taking place during the summer holidays. After finishing school, all my students go home and watch the matches, and come in the next day excitedly talking to their friends and classmates about it. 

The games themselves aren’t the only subject up for discussion: more often than not, conversations turn to the different cultures and fans they have seen on TV, which country has the most interesting national anthem, what Qatar looks like, or how impressive the stadiums are. On the playground, I’ll see children emulating a trick or goal celebration they have seen on TV, pretending to be Mbappé, Ronaldo or Messi, or wearing replica jerseys of other countries during after-school clubs.

This year’s tournament also marks the first time that female referees have been selected to officiate at a men’s international competition – and seeing young girls notice this and talk about it is wonderful. The impact of the Lioness’ success at the Euros this summer can’t be underestimated, and seeing female referees take charge on a world stage previously dominated by men will go a long way to encouraging the next generation of female players. 

When all’s said and done, football is ultimately about community, bringing people together through shared love of the game and inspiring a new generation to play sports. The World Cup is an amazing vehicle for inspiring schoolchildren to take up sports and develop their skills not just as individual players but as part of a team, and by extension, a community.